As Burns' Night, 1996, celebrates the bicentenary of the poet's death, a new Life examines the story of the 'lewd, amazing peasant of genius'
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THE CULT of Robert Burns, strong even in his own day, has been particularly persistent, bound up so intimately as it is with Scottish national sentiment and pride. Those attempting to set the record straight about "the lewd, amazing peasant of genius" have done so at their peril. When Catherine Carswell published the first undoctored life of Burns in the 1930s, she became the victim of a sort of Caledonian fatwa: a bullet arrived in the post, with a sinister note signed by "Holy Willie"; one reviewer called her book "the kind of record Satan might keep near the door of his dark abode". "[Burns] is more a personage to us than a poet, more a figurehead than a personage, and more a myth than a figurehead," wrote the poet Edwin Muir; clearly any new biographer will still have his work cut out to distinguish effectively between these layers.

Burns himself provided the defining text for the myth in his dedication to the second edition of his Poems, published in 1787: "The Poetic Genius of my Country found me as the prophetic bard Elijah did Elisha - at the plough; and threw her inspiring mantle over me," he wrote. The scene is dear to bardolaters, and has been realised in oils numerous times, with Burns looking suspiciously sober and coy, the plough resting in pliant soil and a wee tim'rous beastie scuttling into the grass. However, Burns only developed this image to please the dedicatees, the members of the Caledonian Hunt, chosen because they topped the subscribers' list with an order of 500 copies. The flowery language is typical of his obsequious mode when addressing his social superiors, but probably satirical.

Even in his native Ayrshire, the phenomenon of the (supposedly) semi- literate bard excited attention, and after the success of the first edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, Burns's presentation in Edinburgh became inevitable. "Who are you, Mr Burns?" asked the Edinburgh Magazine, which went on to invent an unlikely reply from a man whose education may have been patchy but not primitive: "I understand no languages but my own ... I have not looked on mankind through the spectacle of books. An ounce of mother wit, you know, is worth a pound of Clergy; and Homer and Ossian, for any thing that I have heard, could neither write nor read." "The Author is indeed a striking example of Native Genius bursting through the obscurity of poverty," gushed the reviewer, but the "heaven-taught ploughman" himself despised those who treated him like a novelty. He told one hostess that he would only accept her invitation if the "learned pig" on show in Edinburgh at the same time could come too.

In his fine new biography, Ian McIntyre keeps his consideration of the Burns myth short. He also plays down much of the cult-fostering material, such as "The Cottar's Saturday Night" and "To a Mouse", and adheres as closely as possible to contemporary sources, with wide use of Burns's correspondence. The result is a vigorous and unsentimental portrait of a confused, brilliant and aimless man, "the sport of strong passions" throughout his short life.

Though he came from a family of tenant farmers, Burns's heart was not in farming, or the job as an excise officer which he later undertook. His two ruling passions, for women and poetry, were strangely dependent. The occasion for his first poem, written aged 15, was first love, and he seems to have suffered from lack of inspiration during celibate periods (these were scarce and brief). When ice-bound in Edinburgh society, he dared not employ his usual seduction technique ("try for intimacy as soon as you feel the first symptoms," he had once advised a younger brother), and neither could he write. He was addicted to "the sport" as much as he was to drink in his later years; it was essential to his well-being.

The reviewer who praised the "rustic pleasantry" of Burn's Poems saw fit to add that the poet "seems to be a boon companion and often startles us with a dash of libertinism, which will keep some readers at a distance", this despite the fact that Burns had left out of his collection many of the most mordant satires, and all the earthier poems, such as "A Poet's Welcome to his Bastart Wean" and 'The Court of Equity'. His numerous obscene verses were never, of course, put forward for publication, though Ian McIntyre, in a dry aside, remarks that "the impenetrability of the Scots ... affords almost total protection to delicate English ears." They serve as a reminder that Burns was a remarkably inconsistent poet, in content as much as in quality. One side of him was pure romantic -- at Blair Castle he "threw himself on the heathy seat and gave himself up to a tender, abstracted, voluptuous enthusiasm of imagination" - another side was pure ran-stam boy, devising endless synonyms for his "Pen of Nature".

Burn's love affairs were numerous and ardent, but sometimes difficult to interpret, and his eventual marriage to Jean Armour, whose family had not thought him good enough at first, but by whom he had four bastard children, remains slightly coloured by motives of revenge and pique. Their passionate and difficult relationship is only sparsely documented, while every last gasp of Burns's protracted flirtation with an Edinburgh gentlewoman, Nancy McLehose, survives in their voluminous correspondence. In his adopted guise as Mrs McLehose's "Sylvander", Burns wrote some of his most extravagantly silly prose: "O Love and Sensibility, ye have conspired against My Peace! I love to madness, and I feel to torture!" and his "Clarinda" responded in kind. "Yet we must guard against going to the verge of danger," she protested, though they were clearly dancing on this verge for months, and when Burns wearied and went home to marry Jean, she was mortified but hardly puzzled.

His crushes on upper-class women never came to good, and the most mysterious and unsatisfactory episode in his life involved some gross misdemeanour among the ladies at the home of his friends the Riddells, which led to an irreparable breach. Gentility in women was an insuperable obstacle to Burns, and he railed against it in terms that also suggest his frustration at not finding a more suitable companion than Jean: "Circumstanced as I am, I could never have got a female Partner for life who could have entered into my favourite studies, relished my favourite Authors, &c. without entailing on me at the same time, expensive living, fantastic caprice, apish affectation, with all the other blessed Boarding-school requirements."

Burns had huge fame as a poet but no "career" as such. He was temperamentally disinclined to plan ahead or exploit the financial possibilities of his gift, and sold the rights of his Poems for a hundred guineas. In 1787 Burns began an association with James Johnson, a music seller engaged in an ambitious project to collect all extant old Scots songs and publish them in arrangements for piano. The work Burns did for him was intensely satisfying, preoccupying and unremunerative; by reworking or "mending" the words to the songs, Burns produced some of the most powerful lyrics in Scots or any language, from the simple "My heart's in the Highlands" to the hauntingly beautiful "Lang has we parted been".

Burns signed these entries in Johnson's Scots Musical Museum "Z" to denote "old songs with corrections or additions". McIntyre shows how small yet transforming some of these corrections were, such as the changes Burns made to the original version of "Auld Lang Syne" and "John Anderson, my jo", which he shifted from bawdy into a poignant love-song. Burns seems to have had an infallible ear for lyric and his best efforts bear out the critic Thomas Crawford's opinion that they represent "the perfection of the old achieving the shock and immediacy of the new".

Burns was a man of his times, and eager to pick up contemporary political jargon in his satires, such as "The Jolly Beggars", though as Ian McIntyre points out his politics were "never less than moderately confused"; indeed he seems to have achieved the rare distinction of being both Jacobite and Jacobin simultaneously. His political gestures - such as once refusing to stand for "God Save the King" at the theatre - were often misconceived, but still managed to get him into trouble and threaten his livelihood as an excise officer. This reckless streak, and the heavy drinking that developed in the years when he was apparently settling down in Dumfries with Jean and their many children, indicates a continued lack of his desired "internal peace". The disease which finally killed him at the age of 37 brought with it symptoms of depression and lassitude. Ian McIntyre thinks that this illness might well have been brucellosis, acquired during his years as a farmer; death, too, found him "at the plough".

In a piece of sustained invective against "antiquarian Burnsians", the poet Hugh MacDiarmid raged against "the witless lucubrations of the hordes of bourgeois 'orators' who annually befoul his memory". Ian McIntyre does Burns a far greater service than simply railing against the absurdities of Burns Night. His intriguing portrait, written in delightfully exact English (a Scots virtue, if ever there was one), rests on its truth to Burns's genius and his ordinariness, and is likely to inspire more admiration than ever before for "the most Scottish and yet most universal of all poets".

8 'Dirt and Deity: A Life of Robert Burns' by Ian McIntyre, HarperCollins pounds 20

8 Claire Harman is the editor of Sylvia Townsend Warner's diaries (Virago pounds 12.99); she is now writing a Life of Fanny Burney.